Chapter 49 Malaria

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Malaria is a major international health problem. As global travel increases, malaria is found with increasing frequency in areas in which malaria is not endemic. Human malaria is typically caused by four species of parasitic protozoa—Plasmodium falciparum, Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium ovale, and Plasmodium malariae—that are transmitted by mosquitoes. Prevention of malaria infection through counseling, chemoprophylaxis, and personal protective measures can significantly reduce the risk of malaria morbidity in travelers. Because malaria infection can be life threatening, awareness of rapid diagnosis and management of this disease by health care providers are essential.


Malaria is endemic throughout tropical areas of the world and is usually transmitted to humans through the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito (Figure 49-1, online). Nearly 48% of the world’s population live in malaria-endemic areas.25 According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were an estimated 243 million cases (5th to 95th percentiles, 190 to 311 million cases) of malaria worldwide in 2008, which resulted in an estimated 863,000 deaths (5th to 95th percentiles, 708 to 1.3 million deaths).64 The majority of the cases occurred in the African region (89%).64 Most malaria-related deaths occur among infants and young children. In Africa, malaria accounts for 20% of all childhood deaths. P. falciparum and P. malariae are found throughout malaria-endemic areas of the world, including Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. P. vivax is endemic in Latin America, Asia, and the South Pacific, but uncommon in areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Both P. falciparum and P. vivax were historically endemic in temperate areas such as North America and Europe, and transmission still occurs rarely in these areas.38 Specifically, in the United States, anopheline mosquitoes are present (at least seasonally) in all states except Hawaii. Low frequencies of P. ovale infection are prevalent in most malaria-endemic areas, especially in West Africa.

The risk of acquiring malaria is highest for travelers to sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania (i.e., Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands), intermediate in the Indian subcontinent and Haiti, and lowest (but still significant) in Southeast Asia and the Americas (Table 49-1).7 There can be variability in transmission within endemic areas based on season, altitude, and type of travel. For example, the risk of acquiring malaria is lower for a business traveler to a Southeast Asian city staying in an air-conditioned hotel than for a backpacker hiking and sleeping in tents in East Africa. Rates of malaria among U.S. civilians have been rising as travel to malaria-endemic areas increases.32 In 2009, there were 1484 cases of malaria in the United States reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).32 The majority were imported from malaria-endemic areas of Africa (73%) and Asia (14%) and caused by P. falciparum (46%).32 In addition, cases of malaria have been acquired in the United States, which indicates that transmission is possible in temperate areas where Anopheles mosquitoes are present.16,32

TABLE 49-1 Risk of Malaria by Region

Risk Region
High Sub-Saharan Africa, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu
Intermediate Indian subcontinent and Haiti
Low (but significant) Southeast Asia, Central America, and South America

From the American Academy of Pediatrics: Malaria. In Pickering LK, Baker CJ, Long SS, et al, editors: Red Book: 2006 report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases, ed 27, Elk Grove Village, Ill, 2006, American Academy of Pediatrics, pp 435-441.

Parasite resistance to antimalarials has been increasing (Table 49-2).56 In addition, P. falciparum is becoming resistant to other antimalarials, such as mefloquine, pyrimethamine–sulfadoxine, and halofantrine (Figure 49-2).7 Pyrimethamine–sulfadoxine resistance is common throughout Africa. Mefloquine resistance has been demonstrated in Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China.7 In Southeast Asia, partial resistance of P. falciparum to quinine or quinidine has also been reported. Areas with reports of chloroquine-resistant P. vivax include Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Myanmar, India, Brazil, and Guyana.3 Chloroquine-resistant P. malariae has been described in Sumatra.31

TABLE 49-2 Antimalarial Drug Resistance in Malarial Parasites

Plasmodium Species Drugs for Which Resistance is Established
P. falciparum Chloroquine, mefloquine, pyrimethamine–sulfadoxine, and halofantrine; partial resistance to quinine and quinidine; resistance to multiple drugs
P. vivax Chloroquine, pyrimethamine–sulfadoxine, and primaquine
P. ovale None established
P. malariae None established

Many genetic changes in human red blood cells occur in areas where malaria is or was historically endemic, which suggests that these polymorphisms have arisen to protect individuals from malaria. Sickle cell disease, thalassemia, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency, and Southeast Asian ovalocytosis (including Gerbich negativity) have all been suggested to confer protection from falciparum malaria mortality.42,55 In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 100% of the population is negative for the Duffy blood group and has absolute protection against P. vivax, which depends on the Duffy antigen as a receptor for invasion.35

Malaria Parasite

Mosquito Vector

The female Anopheline mosquito is the arthropod vector for the malaria parasite (Figure 49-3). Of almost 430 Anopheles species, only 30 to 40 transmit malaria (Figure 49-4). These include Anopheles gambiae, Anopheles funestus, and Anopheles arabiensis in Africa; the Anopheles punctulatus group in Papua New Guinea; Anopheles culicifacies in India; Anopheles darlingi in South America; and Anopheles quadrimaculatus in North America.29 The female mosquito’s proboscis pierces the skin of a person to obtain the blood meal necessary for her to produce eggs. Distinguishing features of Anopheles mosquitoes include sensory palps that are as long as the proboscis and discrete blocks of black and white scales on the wings.5 Both male and female Anopheles mosquitoes rest with their abdomens sticking up in the air as opposed to parallel to the surface on which they are resting.6

Life Cycle

The life cycle of the malaria parasite involves both vertebrate and arthropod hosts (Figure 49-5). The asexual haploid form of the malaria parasite in the mosquito is the sporozoite. Transmission of 8 to 12 sporozoites usually occurs through the bite of a nocturnal-feeding female Anopheles mosquito (see Figure 49-3). Sporozoites then rapidly migrate through the bloodstream to the liver, where they mature and produce 10,000 to 30,000 merozoites per sporozoite. The merozoites are released into the bloodstream 8 to 25 days later to invade circulating erythrocytes (see Figure 49-5).21 A subset of P. vivax and P. ovale parasites may remain dormant as hypnozoites in the liver and emerge as merozoites months to years after the initial inoculation to establish blood-stage infection. Merozoites enter red blood cells rapidly through specific erythrocyte receptors, many of which are yet undefined. P. falciparum has several invasion pathways, including glycophorins A and C, whereas P. vivax depends solely on the Duffy antigen for erythrocyte invasion.65

In the red blood cell, the asexual parasites consume hemoglobin and enlarge from the ring forms to become trophozoites and then schizonts. As the schizonts mature through multiple nuclear divisions, the red blood cell bursts and releases 6 to 24 merozoites to invade additional circulating erythrocytes.4 The blood-stage cycle takes place over 48 to 72 hours. Some parasites develop into gametocytes (the sexual stage), which can infect mosquitoes when taken up during a feeding. After being ingested by an Anopheles mosquito, diploid zygotes are formed. Zygotes mature into ookinetes in the mosquito midgut.47 The resulting oocyst expands through meiotic reduction division within 7 to 10 days and releases sporozoites that localize through the hemolymph to the salivary gland of the mosquito.4 The sporozoites are subsequently transmitted to another human host during the next blood meal.


Natural transmission of malaria occurs through the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito. Blood-stage infection can also be established by transfusions of blood or blood products, by organ transplantation, or by sharing contaminated needles or syringes.32,45 Occasionally congenital malaria occurs when mothers of newborns are infected.32,54 It may be difficult to distinguish congenital malaria from natural mosquito-borne transmission when the diagnosis is made in neonates 2 to 3 weeks after birth.

Clinical Manifestations and Pathogenesis

Major Clinical Findings

Clinical symptoms of malaria can develop as soon as 7 days to as late as several months after exposure in an area with endemic malaria. The majority of individuals who are diagnosed in the United States experience the onset of signs of symptoms after they return to the United States. A febrile illness in a traveler who has returned from a malaria-endemic area within the previous 3 months should be evaluated urgently.

Red blood cell lysis and the release of merozoites at the end of a period of intraerythrocytic asexual reproduction result in the classic presentation of a malarial paroxysm, which is characterized by high fevers, chills, rigors, sweats, and headache (Table 49-3). Without appropriate therapy, paroxysms can recur in a cyclic pattern (i.e., every 48 hours with P. vivax and P. ovale and every 72 hours with P. malariae). Although P. falciparum has a 48-hour asexual erythrocytic cycle, fever and chills typically occur without any periodicity, because erythrocyte lysis is not synchronized.

TABLE 49-3 Clinical Manifestations and Complications of Human Plasmodium Infection

Plasmodium Species Manifestations and Complications
All species Fever, chills, rigors, sweats, and headaches
P. falciparum Hyperparasitemia
  Cerebral malaria: seizures, obtundation, and coma
  Severe anemia
  Renal failure
  Pulmonary edema (noncardiogenic)
  Vascular collapse
P. vivax and P. ovale Splenic rupture
Relapse months to years after primary infection because of latent hepatic stages
P. malariae Low-grade fever and fatigue
  Chronic asymptomatic parasitemia
  Immune complex glomerulonephritis

Patients with malaria infection may also present with generalized weakness, backache, myalgias, vomiting, diarrhea, and pallor. If an appropriate travel history is not obtained, malaria infection can be mistaken for a viral syndrome or acute gastroenteritis. In addition, severe malaria can mimic other diseases (e.g., meningitis, typhoid fever, dengue, hepatitis) that are common in malaria-endemic countries. Partially immune individuals who have recently arrived from endemic areas (e.g., immigrants, refugees) may be asymptomatic or have jaundice or signs of hepatosplenomegaly. Laboratory studies may reveal anemia and thrombocytopenia. Perinatal transmission of malaria is usually caused by P. falciparum and P. vivax. Clinical manifestations of congenital malaria can mimic neonatal sepsis and include fever, poor appetite, irritability, and lethargy.

Complications of P. Falciparum

Infection with P. falciparum has a greater risk for complications and death than infection with the other three human malarial species. First, P. falciparum can invade erythrocytes of all ages and thus produce overwhelming parasitemia. Second, red blood cells that are infected with P. falciparum adhere to endothelial cells, leading to microvascular pathology not observed with other malarial species.34 Third, P. falciparum is frequently resistant to antimalarials (see Figures 49-1 and 49-2; Figure 49-1, online).

Travelers from nonendemic areas, children, and pregnant women are at greatest risk for developing complications from malaria infection. A person is considered to have complicated malaria when the manifesting signs include altered mental status, seizures, profound anemia, respiratory distress, gross hematuria, shock, or severe laboratory abnormalities, including hypoglycemia, acidosis, signs of disseminated intravascular coagulation, and hyperparasitemia (see Table 49-3). These are summarized as follows:

Severe anemia: Overwhelming parasitemia (i.e., >106 parasitized red blood cells/µL or >20% parasitized circulating red blood cells) can develop rapidly in nonimmune individuals, resulting in severe anemia (i.e., hemoglobin level of <5 to 7 g/dL). The degree of parasitemia is always proportional to the degree of anemia. Moderate to low-grade parasitemia as well as persistent or recurrent infections in semi-immune individuals can lead to slow development of severe anemia. Factors contributing to development of anemia include red blood cell lysis and release of mature schizonts, suppression of erythropoietin by cytokines, and peripheral destruction of erythrocytes by the spleen.34

Renal failure: The pathogenesis of renal failure may be multifactorial. These individuals have sequestration of parasitized erythrocytes in the cortex and findings consistent with acute tubular necrosis in the medulla. Other factors contributing to renal failure include hypotension, microvascular obstruction by P. falciparum–parasitized red blood cells, and free malarial pigment or heme.52 Renal failure is rare among children who are younger than 8 years old. Nonimmune individuals receiving treatment with quinine or quinidine may develop renal failure from massive hemolysis, resulting from overwhelming parasitemia and leading to free hemoglobin in the urine (i.e., blackwater fever).51

Factors indicating a poor prognosis for persons with severe malaria include clinical, biochemical, and hematologic features (Table 49-4).24,43,58 Poor clinical prognostic indicators include impaired consciousness, repeated convulsions, respiratory distress, bleeding, and shock. Biochemical indicators include renal impairment, acidosis, jaundice, hyperlactatemia, hypoglycemia, and elevated aminotransferases. Finally, hematologic features indicative of a poor prognosis include a hemoglobin level of less than 5 g/dL, parasitemia of more than 500,000 parasites per milliliter, greater than 10,000 mature trophozoites and schizonts per milliliter, or malaria pigment in at least 5% of neutrophils. A video clip of an African child with severe malaria can be accessed at

TABLE 49-4 Indicators of a Poor Prognosis with Severe Malaria

Indicator Factor Comments
Clinical Age <3  
  Impaired consciousness  
  Seizures (≥3 in 24 hr)  
  Absent corneal reflexes  
  Decerebrate or decorticate rigidity  
  Respiratory distress  
Biochemical Hypoglycemia Glucose <40 mg/dL
  Acidosis Plasma bicarbonate <15 mmol/L
  Hyperlactatemia Lactate >45 mg/dL
  Renal impairment Serum creatinine >3 mg/dL; BUN >60 mg/dL
  Elevated aminotransferases >3 times normal
  Hyperbilirubinemia Serum total bilirubin >2.5 mg/dL
Hematologic Hyperparasitemia >500,000 parasites/mL or >10,000 mature trophozoites and schizonts/mL
  Anemia Hemoglobin <5 g/dL; packed cell volume <15%
  Visible malarial pigment >5% neutrophils with malarial pigment

BUN, Blood urea nitrogen.



The most important factor for early and prompt diagnosis of malaria, particularly in nonendemic areas, is for the health care provider to consider it in the differential diagnosis of a febrile patient with appropriate travel history. Most imported malaria cases in the United States occur among travelers who have visited friends or relatives in malaria-endemic areas.32 Because of the risk of complications and death, fever in the returned traveler should be taken seriously. A thorough travel history must be obtained, including travel dates, destinations, and any chemoprophylaxis taken.30,57 As a result of drug resistance and the possibility of inadequate adherence to medication schedules, a history of chemoprophylaxis use in a returned traveler does not exclude a diagnosis of malaria. The patient may not have the typical malarial paroxysms of fever and chills. Nonspecific symptoms such as fatigue, diarrhea, headache, myalgias, and sore throat may lead to another diagnosis. Fever and persistent malaise may occur among semi-immune individuals.

Sep 7, 2016 | Posted by in EMERGENCY MEDICINE | Comments Off on Malaria
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